A fine, deeply felt saga of lives caught up in progress that’s as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.

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The River's Song

Class and cultural rifts in booming Singapore tear apart families and lovers in Lim’s (Fistful of Colors, 2003) affecting, lushly textured historical novel.

Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s isn’t yet a glittering metropolis—instead, it’s a warren of squatters’ shacks and crowded alleys, where young Wong Ping-ping struggles to survive. Her mother, Yoke Lan, a beautiful nightclub singer/courtesan who plays a Chinese instrument called the pipa, left her for Hong Kong to seek her fortune. Ping sleeps in a cage in a rooming house, working in the landlord’s cafe and local markets to earn money for school books. Her boon companion is Weng, the son of a poor family, who dreams of being a flautist; his father, a river worker, is also a pipa virtuoso who takes Ping on as a student. They lead a threadbare but rich existence in the multiracial bustle of Singapore’s Chinatown and along the colorful, decrepit banks of the city’s river. But then Yoke Lan returns with a rich husband, and Ping moves to their grand house, posing as a distant relative to hide her mother’s disreputable past. Ping’s new life is wonderfully advantaged but loveless and tense; meanwhile, her deepening involvement with Weng becomes complicated by their starkly diverging fortunes. Her stepfather’s business moves to evict Weng’s neighborhood from a riverfront where land values are skyrocketing along with Singapore’s economy. Fate carries Ping to America, and after decades, she returns to take stock of her fraught relationships with Yoke Lan and Weng. Singaporean novelist Lim paints an evocative, atmospheric portrait of old Singapore and its vigorous, sometimes-brutal transition to modernity. She shows readers deeply rooted communities bulldozed to make way for grandiose developments; populist movements pitted against brusque bureaucracies and police strong-arming; and traditional cultures crumbling before a new ethos of on-the-make capitalism and technocratic expertise. Her well-drawn characters bear the scars of this history—Yoke Lan, for example, is a bundle of brittle social ambitions and insecurities as she tries to fit in with the elite—yet they retain their vibrant individuality as they struggle to keep their feet amid the upheaval. Lim tells their story in prose that’s subtle, cleareyed and lyrical, linking a city’s rise with the emotional travails of its inhabitants.

A fine, deeply felt saga of lives caught up in progress that’s as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.

Pub Date: May 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-906582-98-2

Page Count: 363

Publisher: Aurora Metro Press

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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